Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Operation KTHMA: Memories of Egypt

One thing I probably could have foressen if I had thought about it, but which has nevertheless taken me by surprise, is the effect that the game framework is having on what looks from an external perspective like ordinary classroom discussion. There are plenty of times when I have to treat the class-meeting as I would treat a class-meeting of any other discussion-based course: that is, telling the students stuff about the ancient world and asking them questions about what they know—that is, what they've read so far for the course and what they may know from previous courses. That kind of discussion has always been my bread-and-butter, since in any pedagogical situation it's an extremely important way of getting students to engage the course material critically, and thus of achieving the key course goal that I call "Skill at Analysis." It's also a key element in achieving the other major goal that I call "Knowledge of the Ancient Material" in a way that makes that knowledge more readily available than would be the case if I just stood up and lectured.

I'm pretty good at getting these discussions going and keeping them rolling in an ordinary class, if I do say so myself (and my teaching evaluations seem to bear this out, thank you very much). But the quality of discussion in CAMS 3212/Operation KTHMA has been beyond anything I've managed before. First of all—though this is finally not the most remarkable development—a larger fraction of the students in the class are talking than is ordinarily the case. That's undoubtedly due in part to the direct link that the experience-point dynamic is drawing between talking in class and final grades. I also think, though, that it has something important to do with the less visible, but in my view more remarkable, development that I've observed, which is the engaged atmosphere in the room.

This afternoon, after another round of skill-practice exercise debriefings (including among other things Herodotean connections to Spinal Tap and Kim Jong Il), the students were accosted in Athens by a veteran of the disastrous Egyptian campaign named Aristides. Under questioning, Aristides revealed that none other than Pericles wanted to see the operatives, because he'd heard about their interrogations around Athens, but that Aristides wouldn't send them on to Pericles until they showed him that they were true supporters of Pericles' cause. (It's very much worth noting that some of the teams have actually been told, privately, that they're not supporters of Pericles' cause.)

In my own conception of the story, this turn towards Pericles is the moment when things start to get serious. I tried hard to convey that feeling as Aristides told the operatives the story of the campaign, of how it had started well, but how, with the First Peloponnesian War looming in the 450's, Pericles and Athens had had their attention diverted, and had allowed horrendous loss of life and treasure in Egypt. Aristides' secret, which is my own fictionalization (though one that has some support from the scant evidence), was that the disaster in Egypt was Pericles' fault.

Class 2 came through to get that secret with a truly wonderful role-playing attack. As a reward for their skill-practice exercise they had received as a reward earlier in the day a pet, a Palaeornis, a small bird/dinosaur creature. (They had linked the idea of empiricism to the empirical basis of paleontology, as demonstrated in a recent article published in Nature about dinosaurs' relation to birds.) They showed Aristides the creature and said that they were sure Pericles would want to see it, since it was such a curiosity and they knew Pericles to be interested in such curious and novel things. In the way they formulated their statement to Aristides, they came rather close to the substance of another class-team's secret, which added nicely to the tension.

After that, the fictionalization grew rather stronger—though again there's nothing in the record that's actually inconsistent with what Aristides said. Aristides told the operatives that Pericles needed help spreading the story that the disaster was actually Cimon's fault. At that moment the Demiurge intervened, to say that the operatives' new imperative is to discover more about Pericles' and Cimon's rivalry. I'm thus hoping that the shadowy figure of Cimon, most unheralded of Athens' great statesmen, will haunt their thoughts until Wednesday. (Discussion in the team forums seems to indicate I won't be disappointed.)

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Operation KTHMA: the logagonistic system

See this hub for a guide to my posts on Operation KTHMA.

Last Wednesday, the KTHMA team (that is, the students of CAMS 3212) tried out the logagonistic system for the first time in an encounter with their Athenians' old school-teacher. The logagonistic system is the equivalent of the combat systems to be found in many kinds of games, role-playing games (RPG's), whether tabletop or digitally-mediated, in particular. The system is based, to the extent I've been able to do so, on Corvus Elrod's Kiai-Megill Variant (KMV) of his HoneyComb Storytelling Engine. (My difficulty in using Corvus' engine is that we're all still eagerly awaiting its actual release, and so my own efforts are in fact based on my reconstructions from his sometimes cryptic posts about it.) On Friday the operatives (that is, the students) began an encounter that continued yesterday, with a minor tragedian.

The basic idea of the KMV, and of logagonistics, is of verbal contest. At the key moments of the course-game-story, the operatives have conversations. In those conversations the operatives discover the information that allows them to achieve course/game objectives. In their broad outlines, these conversations are played according to a game-play model that closely resembles the combat system to be found in games ranging from paper-and-dice RPG's to action games like Prince of Persia.

The genius of Corvus' idea for the KMV is in my opinion the use of a secret kept by each character in a conversational encounter as the measure of that character's distance from a failure-state. Once a character's secret has been revealed, the character is defeated; players of RPG's and many other kinds of game will recognize that the secret is thus a stand-in for "Health" or "Hit Points." In the KMV Corvus also uses the device of a suspicion for each character; I've elected to let the operatives form their own suspicions and follow up on them.

When I first considered the idea of the secret, I wondered whether it might not be too restrictive to allow the encounter to feel representative of a real conversation. A thought of the way we accept the pressing of buttons and the accompanying onscreen action as the swinging of a sword or the casting of a spell, however, made me realize that as those things are metonymies of real action, so secrets are metonymies of the real interpersonal dynamics of a conversation. It's hard to put into words how strongly the atmosphere of a KTHMA session demonstrates the truth of that realization.

Before the encounter with the schoolteacher, I gave each class-team a secret by posting it in a briefing only visible to that team. I must admit to having had fun devising these secrets, precisely because of the two constraints I put on myself:
  1. Each secret had to have an integral relation to the career and worldview by which I've shaped each class.
  2. Each secret had to have an integral relationship with a real event of great significance in the cultural history of Athens.
To put it another way, I wanted every secret to tie back into the goals and objectives of the course. It feels to me like it's worth noting that here again instructional design and game design seem to intersect: in an engaging game, game-mechanics like secrets need to be integrally tied to the player-objectives of the game. Unfortunately, I'll have to be vague about these secrets until one of them is revealed, but they tie the operatives' Athenian hosts into the history of Athens in the 5th Century BCE in ways that I at least think are fascinating; maybe more importantly, having those secrets has made the students do and share research on the period in a way I don't think they ever would have otherwise. I've told the operatives that the rewards for guessing another team's secret will be great.

Logagonistics occurs in a rudimentary turn-based system, upon which I improvise as the occasion warrants—for example, even if it's not the NPC-opponent's turn, strictly speaking, if the teams have got too bogged down in considering their next moves, I'll have the NPC launch an attack. On the operatives' turn, each team rolls a die; highest roll goes first. On each turn, the class-team has three options:
  1. Simple discourse—ask a question or make a statement. If the question or statement is well-phrased enough, I score it as a hit, and have the NPC answer the question or respond to the statement in a way that reveals part of his or her secret. If the question or statement is too vague, I have the team roll a die; depending on the result, the NPC either reveals something or responds evasively.
  2. Class-skill—deploy one of your team's skills (for example Objectivity or Novelty). According to stats that are more or less simply abstractions designed to differentiate teams from one another, the operatives wager power-points and spirit-points to modify their roll and their potential damage. The team rolls, and, on a hit, I take over and tell the team what they're saying to the NPC, in accordance with the skill; the NPC responds to them with a revelation whose importance corresponds to the damage on which the team wagered their power-points.
  3. Role-play (RP) attack—this is the wildcard, and I've made it clear that it has the greatest potential rewards in terms of XP, stats-boosts, and gear-drops. The idea is to do something that RP's their character, potentially using the gear that they've collected so far (each has a weapon and other random things like a happy mask or a flag). This option clearly gives scope for the creative relationship to the material that seems to me to be at the heart of what's making Operation KTHMA successful.

In turn, at least thus far the NPC's have only simple attacks: I roll for the NPC to determine which team he or she is going to attack; I roll again, and on a five or six the NPC reveals a part of that team's secret. (Each team has previously communicated to me what piece of their secret will be revealed on a hit; they've discussed in their team-forums how to subdivide the secret for that purpose.) When the schoolteacher Geromenes hit Class 4 last Wednesday, the tension in the room was palpable—unlike anything I'd ever experienced as a teacher.

I'll leave you hanging as to the very significant encounter with Charicles the tragedian, but the logagonistic encounter with that schoolteacher was over quickly. The operatives, as their Athenian hosts, found the house of Thucydides son of Melesias (that name is important, but not for the reasons I imagine you're thinking, and for which I think almost all the students are thinking it's important), where they had had their early education from a slave named Geromenes. He was just finishing up a lesson about the first book of the Iliad, and he greeted them happily, but with a shadow behind his smiling eyes. (Gotta love narrative shortcuts.)

The encounter opened: the operatives asked why Geromenes seemed so guarded. Class 5 missed with their class skill, Lyrical Fancy. Then Geromenes, suddenly defensive, landed his attack on Class 4: he studied their faces, seemed to remember something, and said, "Wasn't your father involved with the law, a few years back?"

Class 2 then went all in on their Objectivity skill, and spent every point they had for Mission 1 (which would soon be over, admittedly) to get an automatic critical hit. "How can you teach children these homeric stories of heroic glory when they're so clearly bigoted tales of Greek prowess?" I told them they asked.

Geromenes broke down, weeping. "I'm sorry! I'm sorry!" he cried. "This is my secret shame! I taught all of you your Homer for so many years, and now I'm afraid that war against Sparta is coming, and you'll all do what you learned—you'll all fight, and die, in a pointless, bloody conflict. I know that some of the men are preparing to send their sons away—I beg of you, think hard about it!"

Thursday, September 17, 2009

A fun classical time on the Colin McEnroe Show

I had the honor of being the guest of one of my very favorite radio hosts, Colin McEnroe, this afternoon on WNPR. Here's a link to the show notes, where you may also download the episode and/or subscribe to Colin's terrific show.

If you happen to be coming here for the first time, I recommend the links at the top of the righthand column to get a sense of what I'm up to here!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Operation KTHMA: Closing in on Homer

The unexpected development of Friday was that the more-or-less standard—that is, just students and a teacher talking about stuff—discussion of the transport-passage, where Herodotus tells his audience that the Persians say that the Achaeans who went to Troy must have been idiots, was so good that we barely had time to get to Athens. I despair of a way to get any usable data on this dynamic, because I don't think the students actually realize how much better they're doing at discussing a classical text than they would be in a traditional course. Even if I were to ask them a survey-question like "Was your regular class-dicussion enhanced by the game-format of the course?" I wouldn't trust the answer. On the other hand, I do think that they've noticed that they're talking a lot more than they usually do.

Part of the enhancement of their learning experience comes from the simple mechanical tricks of letting them see me punch numbers into a spreadsheet every time they say something and of putting them into small groups for a few minutes to prepare to comment. I'm convinced at this point, though, that without the play context of the game, those tricks wouldn't work anywhere near as well as they seem to be working. In particular, the idea of giving them a "class," which puts them on a "team," and carries a "worldview," seems to be causing them to think much more imaginatively than I've ever seen a group of undergraduates think in an advanced class.

When we did manage to return to Athens, they made their way down to the Piraeus (the port of Athens) and found their way to the merchant ship of Iophon of Halicarnassus, who was able to tell them that he had grown up with Herodotus and that Herodotus had spent a lot of time asking people questions. He said that there had certainly been Persians in Halicarnassus to talk to, but to Iophon's knowledge none had told versions of Greek myths the way Herodotus tells us they did. (That was my way of indicating that we have no evidence that the Persians retold those stories, but also that if we want to say that Herodotus made it up, that argument can only ever be from silence.)

It's probably worth noting that the RPG game-play almost always recapitulates what we've talked about in the discussion of the transport-text, with the added frisson of actually imagining what it would look like to Athenian eyes. In turn, the continuing notion of "playing the past" will hopefully bear fruit when we get to see Herodotus and Thucydides themselves trying to do that same thing and trying to get their audiences to do it. The frisson, that is, becomes the teachable moment of practicing historical discourse.

On Monday we spent most of the time on their first skill-practice exercises. All the class-teams did what I thought were outstanding jobs; I'll single out the comparison of the figure depicted above, and his meme "truthiness" to Herodotus' way of persuading his audience by making his account sound good. The class-skill involved was Class 5's "lyrical fancy," and they were quite convincing on the subject of Herodotus' appeal to what feels true.

I also told them that I'll be pushing a patch to the combat system tomorrow. This patch is based in large part on Corvus Elrod's staggering write-up of the Kiai-Megill Variant of his HoneyComb Engine. In this discursive variant, standard RPG physical and magical combat is transformed into dialogue. In my version, each character (PC or NPC) in what I'm now calling "the logagonistic situation" has a secret s/he must keep; the secret is divulged in bits as the character suffers "hits," and full disclosure of the secret means defeat (for an NPC or a PC in a sparring match) or adverse game consequences (for PC's in Athens). I'll post more about the new logagonistic system on Thursday, hopefully, after the operatives go head-to-head with their old school-teacher, who's holding out on them about Homer.

Operation KTHMA post-hub

Here's a hub for my posts about Operation KTHMA aka UConn CAMS 3212, my role-playing course about the Greek historians Herodotus and Thucydides that first ran in the Fall semester of 2009.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Operation KTHMA: Day 4

The dice—one six-sided die for each class-team, borrowed from my kids' copy of Yahtzee—went out yesterday. I'd been going back and forth on whether the downside of distraction was worth the upside of engagement, and finally decided that the upside is potentially enormous (I have indelible memories of how I cherished my D&D dice and added to them over time), and the downside probably minimal. At any rate, with about ten minutes left in the class-session, Team 4 rolled a six, giving them the initiative in a conversation with a man with a heavy accent who had been muttering about how the Ionian storyteller—this man Herodotus, who the man knew had come from Halicarnassus—was telling lies about the Persians. Team 4 decided to ask how the heavy-accent man knew, and the man told them that they should go see a sailor named Iophon in the Piraeus; he knew they wouldn't take his own word for it, since he was a Persian, but Iophon was an Ionian, and had known Herodotus growing up. There the class-session ended.

Earlier in the session, I'd rated three operatives at Stage 1 for posts they'd made in the forums in the interim that were more or less in-character. One of them had won the piece of gear pictured above, for a particularly belligerent post. Then I'd introduced the Ancient/Modern Interweave Skill-Practice Exercise, which is a collaborate weekly multimedia project that each team must complete and post on most of the Mondays of the course. They'll then present their work to the rest of the KTHMA team in our Monday session. The idea is to use their class-skill in the modern world, and connect multimedia bits of modern culture with the ancient text. It's my fond hope that I'll be able to get their permission to post some of these here on Living Epic.

Then we'd turned to the mission-text, which was the second chapter of Book 1 of Herodotus, in which the writer tells of what the Persians say was the origin of the conflict between Persia and Greece. Either I'm fooling myself or even the non-Greeked students are becoming comfortable with having a big chunk of text in a foreign language with a foreign alphabet on the screen in front of them. My strong feeling is that the game-frame is absolutely crucial here; take away the high-stakes grade-related nature of complex classwork and suddenly everything comes naturally. I wish I had some kind of data to back this assertion up, but I've felt for several years that the biggest problem in my teaching was that I haven't had a way to present complex critical analysis without scaring the clear majority of my students into the disengaged torpor of "This is too hard to understand—I hope he'll just tell us what we need to know for the test." My previous solution, which was to say 1) there's no test and 2) OK, here's a list of precisely the stuff for which I'm actually holding you responsible, has always been unsatisfactory. Again, it's unsupported by data (yet!), but I think the game may be the answer.

As soon as I developed in the operatives a certain skepticism about whether Herodotus could be on the level about what the Persian λόγιοι (wordy-guys, story-tellers) say, the TSTT started to glow, the room faded away, and there they were in Athens again. They got a little lost on the way to the Agora, and ended up at the Acropolis, where the guards told them to get lost, but provided directions to where the Ionian storyteller was holding forth. When they arrived, they found that the crowd was already too big to get close, but they were able to listen to the bystanders, including the heavily-accented man.

I'm a bit surprised by how naturally the course/game has fallen into a turn-based system, and how cycling through the whole class to take the next turn simultaneously removes the vast majority of the pressure of being called on cold and preserves the tremendous benefit of that practice. It's been several years since the last time I tried cold-calling on my students in the traditional way, and I've regretted that because there's absolutely nothing like it for maintaining engagement. To make this turn-based class-participation even stronger, the next piece of the game-development is I think to come up with a handy chart of the possible actions for a turn, for example speech, movement, call to the Demiurge, attack, skill-use.

Tomorrow we'll be meeting the ghost of Homer head-on for the first time. Since I don't believe there was any such person, there unfortunately won't be any combat with the undead.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Game-rules and story-elements

Here at last is the fifth in the PPP series. The skeleton of this post was written more than a year ago, but in writing it I realized that I was having a hard time expressing the ideas without jargon, a difficulty that I've learned to take as a warning sign that I haven't thought something through, and one which obviously stands in the way of sharing the idea with the broad audience I'm hoping it will build. With a few semesters of explaining this notion to students and friends behind me, I think I can push on down the road of the PPP.

When I left this series hanging, so many months ago, we'd come to the end of the unpacking process as far as the definition of the PPP itself was concerned. In this post I’m going to get into the first corollary, a corollary so important as really to make it an essential part of the definition. Here’s the whole definition, again, as usual:
A PPP is an intersubjective performance that takes place in a cultural zone demarcated for play (that is, as not having a direct effect on material circumstances, although that demarcation does not mean in actual reality that material circumstances are unaffected). Within that zone conventions may be and usually are determined by rules analogous to the rules for the setting up of conventions in the misunderstood-as-unzoned “real world.”
The part I’m going to talk about in this post is the first part of the last sentence, which is about conventions within the zone of play, and their relation to what we usually think of as rules. I want to suggest that what we think of as “rules” and what we think of as the key elements of story-telling—genre, setting, plot, characters—are actually two varieties (flavors, even) of the same thing. Then, I want to suggest that that thing, whether it appears in a homeric epic or in a first-person shooter, gets its meaning from the way the PPP's participants (author, audience, designer, player) shape its relationship to the “real world” in their imaginations.

I think “rules” is as good a term as any, since rules and play are closely associated in a variety of areas, and play is the heart of the PPP. So I’ll keep using that word. Retaining “rules” also means that one end of the comparison is relatively neatly anchored—everybody has played games, and has an insinctual feel for what a rule is, even if "rule" remains hard to define exactly.

Interactive storyteller Corvus Elrod defines a game-rule as "a precisely-defined relationship within the gamespace." ("Gamespace" is Corvus' term for what I would call a game's particular instance of the zone of play.) This definition will seem abstruse at first, I think, but its usefulness appears quickly when we apply it, because it covers game-phenomena as diverse as "At the start of the player's turn, he or she roles the dice" and "When the player pushes the A-button in this situation, the player-character jumps" and "When the player has killed Andrew Ryan, he or she must disarm the self-destruct sequence for the story to proceed" and "If the player chooses those dialogue options, he or she will be given the opportunity to kill Carth Onasi." Each of those relationships is precisely-defined within the gamespaces of Yahtzee (among many, many others), Super Mario Brothers (among many, many others), Bioshock, and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic.

We have rules pretty much nailed down, then. The other end of the comparison, though, is still floating free—why am I saying that rules and the elements of a story are the same thing? The answer is simple, though it will take a while to make it fully persuasive: story-elements themselves are precisely-defined relationships within the zone of play. Let's take the most obvious of story-elements first—plot. Plot is what happens in the zone of play constituted by the story—that is, from one important perspective, plot is the precisely-defined relationship between each event and every other event in the story. In the Iliad, for example, the plot of the beginning of Book 1 runs "Chryses comes to ransom his daughter; Agamemnon sends him away; Chryses prays to Apollo; Apollo sends a plague; Achilles calls a council." These events make the story not by themselves, but in relation to one another.

Similarly, character is a set of precisely-defined relationships between parts of a story. This point is self-evident on an obvious level, because Achilles is for example the leader of the Myrmidons and the friend of Patroclus. More importantly, in my view at least, character is a precisely-defined relationship on a deeper level as well: Achilles is the Achilles of the Iliad in that he is the greatest of warriors—that is, he stands precisely-defined in a relationship of superiority both to the other Achaeans of the Iliad and to all the warriors the bard's audience knows. Setting goes the same way: the Achaeans' being encamped on the shore near Troy is expressible as the relationship of where the Achaeans are to where the Trojans are and to where the Achaeans came from. Invididual features like ships and tents are then placed by the PPP's participants (the bard in this case) in relation to that relationship.

Here we run into a question of enormous importance—one that in my opinion demonstrates how crucial the contribution of homeric epic can be to an understanding of how games work. If a seemingly static set of story-elements like the plot and characters of the Iliad as we have it can be expressed in terms of rules, is there then no difference between interactive art and static art? (And, of course, if so, isn't that definition of "rule" clearly wrong?)

The answer is Yes, and No. (And No to the parenthetical question.) The nature of homeric epic is a wonderful guide here, because it demonstrates so clearly the transformation of interactive to static and back. Remember that what we have is a fossil of a once-living tradition of bardic recomposition. The bard begins with a set of rules in the form of a skeleton of plot, characters, setting: because of the bardic tradition's development, he sings within a set of precisely-defined relationships. Achilles for example isn't allowed actually to leave Troy. Achilles is the leader of the Myrmidons. The Achaeans are encamped on the shore near Troy. The bard may order events differently, change details of characters and details of setting, but he may not change the basic course of the story, just as the player of a game like Halo may sometimes do things in a different order, may play the Master Chief as reckless or cowardly, may experience different elements of the landscape the designers have made, but must always do the same things—and in the end, were someone to make a video, or write an account, that player will have produced a static version of the game/story.

The counter-intuitive truth is that that interaction between the participants of a PPP and the rules and story-elements of that PPP produces what looks like a static narrative, but that that static narrative is not actually a different sort of thing, but is rather yet another set of rules for the production of yet another version of the PPP. What looks like a static narrative, when turned into an intersubjective performance by, say, a reader, becomes a new—crucially, constrained in different ways—story or game.

Where does it get us to express the analogy between game-rules and story-elements? It allows us to approach, yes, the relationship between things like interactivity, immersion, and narrative in what I think is a more meaningful way. Among other things, it gets us completely beyond the notion that there's any fundamental split between gameplay and story. To think about rules and things like plot and character this way also helps us talk about the way that events in the zone of play relate to events in the "real world," and what that relation can mean to participants in PPP's.

In the next post, which will hopefully come without such a long hiatus, I'll start exploring the relationship between game-rules/story-elements and stuff in the "real-world." An understanding of games and stories as both being examples of PPP's can get us to some interesting places, I believe, in the intersection of ludonarrative art with the lives we live outside the zone of play.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Operation KTHMA: Day 3

Actual in-world gameplay for the first time yesterday!

In the time between Day 2 and Day 3, one of the operatives, to my delighted astonishment, wrote a gorgeous post in character as Agapocles, her ancient Athenian host, using her class-skill to meditate on the text of Herodotus in relation to Athenian culture. I instantly rated her as a "Stage 1 Operative of the TSTT," gave her a ton of XP and a boost to two vital stats, and then posted a Congratulations-message, with the gear-drop pictured just above.

I was then delighted (though a bit less astonished) when another of my diligent students mailed me (very politely) to ask how the heck Agapocles had managed to get rated Stage 1 before anyone else, and, by the way, what the heck was Stage 1. I encouraged that operative to post in the forum and ask for an explanation from Agapocles' operative. Since things are still a bit confusing in the course/game, and my operatives all have many, many other things going on in their lives, I ended up posting as the Demo Student, asking Agapocles' operative to explain how she'd attained the rating, and she gamely explained that she'd "had him consider" the text.

That was as far as that dynamic got before we met yesterday, but it sowed a very valuable seed, and let me talk at the start of the session about the theory behind the role-playing aspect of the course: seeing the ancient world through ancient eyes is what lets us understand the most important parts of ancient texts. By understanding what Herodotus meant in Athens we understand what his writing really can mean today.

We turned back to the text of the first chapter of book 1 of Herodotus. The discussion that ensued was easily the best discussion I've ever had on that passage with undergraduates. I went from team to team, asking for the insights their skills had given them. The most wonderfully bizarre thing was that it appears that by telling them I had granted them those skills I'd actually evoked the skills in them. The most obvious example is the way the team to which I'd granted "Objectivity" detected some very important traces of bias in passages later in the book that most students simply gloss over.

Each group had its say, and the incipient, fundamental disputes over whether Herodotus is doing something new or something old, and how invested he is in being right, started to break out.

Then I intervened and told them that the TSTT, fed by their psychoporeutic energy ("For 'tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings"), had sprung to life. The room was fading, and now they heard the sounds of voices speaking in another language.

"You're standing in the gateway of a little courtyard. . ."

After a lot of agonizing, I had decided that for certain scenes, the thirty of them would be compressed into a single Athenian, and we would operate with the conceit that parallel scenes were taking place all over Athens, in the lives of thirty different young Athenian men.

(Note on sex and gender: I defaulted all the hosts—that is, in-mission characters—to male. When I explained this dynamic to the operatives, I gave them two reasons, and an out. First, and perhaps most importantly, given that realism is a central goal not for its own sake but rather to provide the students with as accurate a picture of life in 431BCE as possible—which is in fact one of the course objectives—a female character in a realistic Athens would have a very hard time leaving the house. Second, "masculinity" in ancient Athens was most certainly not the same as masculinity today, and it will be up to the operatives to decide how to perform their genders. Finally (the out), I said that if anyone wanted to work out a role-playing way to have a female-sexed Athenian character (for example a girl whose parents raised her as a boy, a character choice which of course has its own gendering difficulties), I would be very open to the idea.)

In the scene that ensued, the player-character's father discussed the political situation with them. He brought them into the andron (man-room—the dining-room of an ancient Greek house) and uncovered his hoplite armor. I gave each decision about what to do or say to a different operative, assigning them their operative code-names (e.g. Operative Jessep, Operative Boston, Operative Red) as I did so. Their first important decision was whether or not to try on their father's armor. Operative Mal (named by the student after the character in Firefly) decided not to try the armor on.

Crucially, the father then offered them the chance to flee the city if war broke out. If the course/game goes to plan, that offer will be a very important plot point.

"Alright," said the father, "go see your mother, and get some sleep. I'm sure you've heard that a storyteller from Ionia has come to town, and I expect you and your friends will be up early to get to the agora and see if you can get a listen."

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Operation KTHMA: Day 2

Yesterday the operatives (students) began their training on the TSTT (TextoSpatioTemporal Transport) System. At the start of the class-session, the Demiurge asked them to divide into their class-teams, according to the classes (for now just known by number) into which they'd been sorted on the course web-site. Much good-humored confusion ensued among the operatives.

All the previous day I'd been assigning them to these classes, and then watching as they found their way to the Hall of κλέος and posted there; when they did, I gave them their name, 22XP, a title, and a piece of gear; depending on how they'd posted, I occasionally awarded "rare drops," like the nerf bat I gave to a student who's declared that he's going to "win the game." (He's a wonderful student, and very rarely says anything unironically.) I'm hoping to establish firmly the idea that progression (which I've now decided is going to be measured on three separate scales, Level, Rank, and Stage-rating) brings game-rewards including a better grade for class-participation, and it seems to be working already for the students who are paying attention.

The issue of students who aren't engaged is starting to surface, though fewer of them than I thought would be the case have raised a protest about the game idea itself. Several students haven't spent much if any time on the website, where the game is really getting played. After some careful consideration, I've realized that in every course I've ever taught (and this includes several honors sections, and even more upper-division courses where I'm at my most engaging and fascinating, though I say it as shouldn't), a sizable percentage of the students have failed to engage. Early, early returns seem to indicate that I may be in the process of bringing that percentage down significantly with Operation KTHMA.

So yesterday, when they had rearranged themselves, they looked at the first paragraph of Herodotus, in Greek (the vast majority of them don't even know the Greek alphabet), projected on the screen, while they had their translations open to the same passage in English. The Demiurge first led them through the passage, going over the pronunciation of some of the Greek letters and diacritical marks. That's information I'll be repeating again and again, because it's essential to the course-play that they be able to draw the connections I want them to draw between Greek words. Because that in turn is the only way they'll attain advancement, I'm banking on them learning the Greek alphabet without noticing it, the same way my son learns the attacks of the various Pokemon.

I flipped to a slide with Greek words closely related to the ones on the first slide, and then led them towards making some connections between the themes behind the words.

Then the course-play really began. Some of them had seen the class-briefing documents I'd put up, which describe their class' basic worldview and their first skill. For example, a Class 1 Observer (Level 1 of that class) has the skill Connective Insight, because he or she sees strange, fundamental connections between things in the world. In-game, that skill will have the function of rendering insights about the situation (more on this to come, obviously); in the TSTT (that is, looking at Greek passages), Connective Insight demands inputs from Class 1 operatives that have to do with the forces that govern the universe, and the connections between them. By contrast, Class 2 Observers have the skill Objectivity, which demands that they try to filter out the bias from an account of events.

At the end of the class meeting, I broke the class up into its teams, and went around explaining their skills, while they looked at the text of Herodotus and tried to use their particular skill upon it. Our session ended at that point, and today, on the website, they're in the process of collaborating in teams to make the connections that will, finally, send them to ancient Athens. Can you tell that I, at least, am feeling rather engaged?

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Operation KTHMA: Day 1, as it actually went down

"According to the student administration system, this is CAMS 3212, Greek Historical Writings. Now that the door is closed, however, I can reveal that what will actually happen in this room this semester is. . ."

I pushed the button on the projector control panel. Nothing happened. Groans from the students who'd been following along on Facebook, followed by sympathetic laughter. A few more button presses, and the slides sprang to life.

"Operation KTHMA."

Really the thing went better than I could have hoped. Only a couple students wore looks that suggested they had been trapped in a hot classroom with a dangerous lunatic.

In fact, two game dynamics that hadn't previously crystallized came to full realization as I was leading us through the set-up for the game: 1) discussion-grinding, where students get 11XP for saying anything meaningful, and multiples of 11XP for saying something clever (one of my favorite students is trying to figure out what the minimum meaningful utterance might be; I can't wait to see whether he finds a way to macro it); 2) the beginnings of a PvP system, where the different classes (which I have to be very careful not to spoil here) will act in opposition to one another—the story I've got planned will offer a lot of opportunity for role-playing the worldviews of the classes, which are decidely not in harmony with one another.

As of midnight last night, two thirds of the class had undergone the Psychometric Sortition Tool, and had been placed in their classes. One of the students had actually been proactive and followed an instruction the Demiurge (that is, I) had left on the site but had not mentioned in the session, to start a thread in the "Hall of κλέος." I awarded him his Greek name, Chyrsopolis, with a title, Protocletic (that is, first-glorified), 22XP, and a picture of the "Sword of κλέος," shown above, as a trophy. Subsequent posts will get diminishing rewards.

In my next update, I'll say more about the classes, since by then all the students will have been assigned to one, and about the "courseplay," since in tomorrow's session I'll be training them in one of the fundamental mechanics, the use of the Textospatiotemporal Transportation Device.